The Interaction between Classical Music, Theatre and Film: Michel van der Aa, Barbican, London

Review by Nathan Breeze

Touring six major European culture halls, Liebestod was a cross-genre performance by the Amsterdam Sinfonietta exploring the interaction between Classical Music, Theatre and Film. The evening was opened by Wagner’s celebrated Tristan und Isolde Prelude, a piece of music composed about the secret yet impossible desire that Tristan has for the wife of his uncle. Continuing with the theme of unobtainable love, Lyric Suite by Alban Berg proved to be heavily influenced by his clandestine obsession with the married Hanna Fuchs-Robettin after letters were found along with an annotated score of the piece in 1977. Extracts of these letters as well as some written to her husband are performed by Dutch actor Jeroen Willems who plays an intoxicated Berg, darkly stalking around the musicians with a glass of red wine in his hand. There are six scores to the piece; three written by Berg and a further three added by Theo Verbey in 2005. The interaction between Berg and the Sinfonietta was at times captivating. The absence of a conductor meant that the performers, led by Candida Thompson, energetically exaggerated their movements creating a dynamic interaction, which, along with the instinctive feel of the music, said everything the actor did not. At times the two genres harmonised very well but I felt that the extracted text was often too long and confusing which led to a loss of momentum. Nevertheless, this type of cross-genre performance clearly has enormous potential.

The highlight of the evening was Up Close by Michel van der Aa. His genre-fusing pieces combine his skills as a composer, stage and film director and have landed him widespread critical acclaim. Up Close was written for the highly regarded Argentinean cellist Sol Gabetta who, together with the Amsterdam Sinfonietta, occupied one side of the stage whilst a cinema screen sat to the other. As the performance started the two sides began to interact. On screen an old woman appeared on a similar yet empty stage before being transported to a haunting memory of an empty old house hidden in a forest. The powerful bursts of live cello by the almost-possessed Gabetta built the tension as the old woman, ensuring the windows are blacked out, used a mysterious communication device. There was a suggestion that that the old woman in the film was the alter ego of the cellist, this was strengthened when the two simultaneously moved an antique lamp across the similar empty stage. As the two genres and characters blended and overlapped, the audience’s eyes and ears were drawn from one side of the stage to the other. The fast and frantic piece concluded when Gabetta moved her chair to play in front of the screen. The stunningly poignant image of the cellist in front of the old woman lying on the floor epitomised the rich potential of cross-genre performance masterfully demonstrated by the growing skill of Van der Aa.

Liebestod was part of the Barbican’s world class 2010-2011 Classical music programme.

Coming up at the Barbican, Polish-Hungarian pianist Piotr Anderszewski returns on 14 April 2011 for a performance with violinist Frank Peter Zimmermann. The programme includes Beethoven’s Violin Sonata in F major, often referred to by its apt nickname Frühlingssonate or ‘Spring’ sonata; Szymanowski’s Myths, which was inspired by Greek mythology and composed in 1915 during a particularly productive period for the composer; and Schumann’s fiery Sonata No 2 in D Minor.

For more information please visit the Barbican website.

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One Comment

  1. Anonymous

    I like the authers name. Nathan Breeze. Is that like a real name? Cool man.

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